/ 16 July 2021

For decades, Malawi welcomed refugees. Then something changed

Malawi. The Tuesday Market At The Dzaleka Refugee Camp Brings Together Refugees And Host Community Members
Rounded up: Dzaleka, Malawi’s only refugee camp, was built for 10 000 people but now houses 45 000 people. (Fanni Uusitalo/UNHCR)

For years, Malawi has been welcoming to refugees. Unlike in many other countries, refugees have been allowed to settle and live in harmony with the local population, for the most part: intermarrying, investing in business and contributing to the country’s development through medicine, nursing, teaching, arts and entrepreneurship.

Although there have been sporadic tensions in past decades as foreign nationals have assimilated into the population, these have been relatively muted.

Yet suddenly, in April this year, Malawi’s homeland security minister Richard Chimwendo announced an immediate shift in policy. In a press briefing, he issued an ultimatum for all refugees to return to the sole refugee camp at Dzaleka, Dowa in central Malawi within 14 days.

Rattled and fearing attacks from xenophobic opportunists, members of the refugee population rushed to court to obtain an injunction.

“People came to my shop and started telling us they will attack us when the deadline expires,” said Elie Umukunzi, a foreign expatriate who is not a refugee. “Everyone regards me as a refugee but I am a businessman of Rwandese origin with working permits.”

Umukunzi joined forces with other foreign nationals who have considerable investments in the country in the court action. One day before the expiry of the government ultimatum, the high court granted Umukunzi an injunction restraining the government from going ahead with the action. Another group of foreign nationals obtained a similar injunction in another court.  

The government has been at pains to explain its decision. It says refugees are welcome, but must stay at the Dzaleka camp. Addressing journalists after a visit to the camp, Chimwendo said security both at home and in neighbouring Mozambique was the motivation for the government’s actions.

Chimwendo assured the refugees that their lives and property would be protected and that, after all refugees had registered at the camp, those who have substantial investments and who had intermarried with the local population could formally make applications to continue living outside the camp. 

“But they will be allowed to live outside only to wind up their businesses, not for good,” the minister said. “We are not chasing them, and we just want them to be where they should be. Those who have businesses … will have to operate from Dzaleka. If they are married they must apply for permanent residence … We are not sending them back to their countries.”

The government has cited security concerns to explain its sudden decision. These focus mainly on neighbouring Mozambique, where foreign fighters have been blamed for fuelling an insurgency in Cabo Delgado. Malawi is among regional countries that have pledged to provide troops to combat the insurgency.

But rights activists are not convinced. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition, the most prominent civil society group in Malawi, has warned that any move be handled with caution.

“The government should make sure that it is not promoting xenophobic attacks against foreigners. Government should make sure that they allow people who have legal documents of doing business and residence to stay. Government should adhere to principles of human rights as they are implementing their action,” chairperson Gift Trapence told The Continent. “Refugees are one of the most vulnerable groups. As such, the government should make sure that they execute the actions within the laws of this country and international refugee law.”

Refugees say that Dzaleka camp is no longer habitable. Initially meant to host some 10 000 refugees, it is now home to 50 000 people living in dilapidated and congested housing, and facing water and sanitation challenges. 

The government says another 2 000 refugees are living among various communities outside the camp.

“With the Covid-19 pandemic, the conditions make the camp a time bomb for diseases as we already have poor sanitation and [it’s] already congested. So we are asking for government to allow those who are outside to continue staying there,” said Romain Bijangala, a community leader for the Congolese community inside the camp.

The government has said it will expand the camp to accommodate new arrivals.

This story first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. To subscribe, send a WhatsApp/Signal message to +27 73 805 6068.